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True Greatness: Joe Paterno

What better way to celebrate the launch of SB Nation Pittsburgh than by mixing it up with our mainstream friends in the Pittsburgh media?

Last week, Ron Cook, though hardly a favorite of Penn State fans, named Joe Paterno the "Greatest Living Coach" in sports history following the death of the incomparable John Wooden.  He headlined a list of greats including Phil Jackson from the NBA, Scotty Bowman from the NHL, and Joe Torre from Major League Baseball among others.

Great coaches all.

It creates a titillating debate if I've ever seen one, and one the folks over at KDKA Pittsburgh's #1 Cochran Sports Showdown couldn't resist last night.

The show featured an all-star cast.  First we have the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Bloggin' Bob Smizik, who doesn't think Paterno is the greatest college football coach let alone coach in general.  Next, we have noted blog enthusiast and Pitt beat reporter Paul Zeise, also from the PG.  And finally, Fox Sports Radio 970's Joe Bendel, who once asked our own BSD Mike whether Daryll Clark could live up to Terrelle Pryor's accomplishments heading into the 2009 season.

The stage is set.  Let the debate begin.

 The Sports Showdown triumvirate: from the left,the PG's Paul Zeise and Bob Smizik, and Fox 970's Joe Bendel

The gentlemen get warmed up with a little college expansion talk at the 12:25 mark or so.  Listen at your leisure, though that subject is becoming more like work than fun.

The main event starts at about 16:35 into the show.  Host Jory Rand posed the question to the panel of whether they agreed with Cook's ranking of Paterno as the top's of all living coaches.  The responses included:

Joe Bendel
  • "No not even close, Phil Jackson is the best coach going right now, living, I mean are you kidding me?"
  • "Slam dunk, I'll use the basketball vernacular, it's Phil Jackson."

Bob Smizik

  • "I know Cook never misses a show, so I'm telling you Ron, utterly ridiculous!  Paterno's been coaching 99 years, he's got a lot of wins, he's got two national championships, none since 1986!  You're putting him behind Phil Jackson, and Scotty Bowman and Mike Krzyzewski?  You've gotta be kiddin'!

Paul Zeise

  • "Bob, you took the words right out of my mouth.  When I saw that, I had to double-take at the masthead to make sure it was the Post-Gazette and not Blue and White Illustrated because it was such a silly premise."
  • "I don't even know if he's in the top 5 [Bob: HE'S NOT!], and when you use the term any sport we could start bringing in people like Dan Gable, who won 17 NCAA Championships as a wrestling coach at Iowa in 20 seasons...Pat Riley, Geno Auriemma, Pat Summit, Phil Jackson, [Bob cracking up] Scotty Bowman, Joe Torre."

Joe is obviously from the Sal The Sports Guy school of talking in absolutes, but he makes a compelling argument for Jackson's 11 NBA titles, and addressing the "yeah but" of having Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan on his team for both of them with the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls, respectively.

Bob could have chosen to make similar arguments for Jackson, Bowman and Krzyewski, but he didn't.  He just made an old man joke and attacked Paterno's lack of championships, making no mention of his undefeated seasons, and untouchable records for wins, bowl wins, and longevity.

And while I like Zeise's choice to throw the names of the less mainstream sports out there, beyond Gable, he didn't really try to argue with facts for anyone else, rather, just spouted off names while laughing at Paterno.  Classy.

But apparently none of these men bothered to read Ron Cook's column, because they completely overlooked what Cook, and Penn Staters everywhere would begin and end the argument: the impact he has on others:

It's not just his 60 years at Penn State. Or his record 394 wins. Or the two national titles and four other unbeaten seasons. Or the record 36 bowl trips with the record 24 wins. Or the countless millions he has raised for his university by becoming the face of the school. It's all of that.

No coach ever had a bigger impact on an institution of higher learning than Paterno has had on Penn State. The man is 83, still working, still winning, still fundraising and still making a difference in a lot of young people's lives. Here's hoping he keeps the title of Greatest Living Coach for a long, long time.

I went after Smizik last year for similar ignorance when he argued that Paterno wasn't even the best in his own sport, and I'll do it again here by asking one question:

How many coaches transcend sports?

Though Paterno's on-field accomplishments are many, and bow to no man's (or woman's), it's the impact he's made on those who might not even know who he is on the University Park campus (hard as that might be to believe) that sets him apart.  Where is the Phil Jackson Library?  The Scotty Bowman Spiritual Center?  The Joe Torre All-Sports Museum.

This isn't to diminish whatever philanthropic work many of these coaches do admirably, not at all.

But Joe Paterno IS Penn State.  His legacy in athletics is only part of his greater accomplishments in making the University one of the best colleges in the world. His impact goes beyond the players he's turned from boys in pads to men with degrees or the fans he's thrilled with the great moments in his coaching career.   It touches the lives of all the students, those who love football, and those who don't.

Paterno's vision of what a university community can do is what shapes the culture so many Penn Staters love.

It's the vision that leads a bunch of strangers to rally behind a little-known football player for a cause.


It's the vision that drives students to keep themselves cloistered in the library that bears his name into the wee hours of the night studying for a mid-term, and it's the vision that inspires a school of poor college kids to dance for 47 consecutive hours to raise over $7,000,000 for childhood cancer during THON.

As a student, I recognize Paterno's importance in making my education what it is today.  His name won't be on my diploma in a few years, nor will his career statistics get me anywhere in a job interview, but his tireless life's work to make my school, beyond just the athletic department, the best it can be, and teach all of us what it means to live a good life is something neither Phil Jackson's rings, nor Scotty Bowman's Cups, nor Joe Torre's dynasty can take away.

I always find myself coming back to this cheesy video, not because it gets me jacked for football season, or because it has a good beat, but because never settling and showing the world what we can do on and off the football field are goals to live by every day.

No man represents that and rallies people behind him for it like Joe Paterno, and that's what separates him.

He's more than a football coach, he's a life coach.  For as long as he's with us, he'll be the very best at both.

Of course, I'm biased.  We're all biased.  That said, you simply cannot talk about Joe Paterno without talking about the impact he's made on the place he's spent his entire career.

After Coach Wooden's passing, his legacy as a human being was at the center of the conversation more so than anything he and his players accomplished on the basketball court.  To me, Paterno deserves that level of dialog. That's the difference between "great" and "greatest."

Bendel, Zeise and Smizik are clearly out of touch with that completely.